The schizophrenic New Orleans Saints completed an up-and-down first half of the NFL season on a major downer Sunday at Ericsson Stadium.
The Saints turned the ball over four times and displayed an ineffective running game again as the Carolina Panthers won 31-17 for their first win of the season.
After starting out 3-0, New Orleans (4-4) has dropped four of its last five games. With road games at Minnesota, San Francisco and Miami looming this month, the Saints' fragile playoff hopes are in jeopardy.
"I don't think you can have an embarrassing loss in the NFL," Saints quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver said. "Anybody can run over anybody. But this is a loss that hurts. I mean, we needed to come out of here 5-3. We're 4-4 at the halfway point. We've got to find a way to get six wins in these next eight games and see how it falls."
Saints turnovers directly led to the two touchdowns that provided the difference.
Carolina cornerback Eric Davis picked off a Tolliver pass in the second quarter and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown, giving the Panthers a 14-0 lead.
With the Saints trailing 17-3, Carolina's Tony Veland stripped the ball from Qadry Ismail on the second-half kickoff. Juran Bolden recovered at the Saints 20 and, three plays later, running back Fred Lane scored on a 5-yard run for a 24-3 Carolina lead.
"When you turn the ball over you lose the football game," Saints coach Mike Ditka said. "We're not good enough to turn the ball over and win."
Carolina (1-7) was glad to get a win any way it could.
"We've been working all year for this," Carolina defense end Sean Gilbert said. "It's almost like we thought it was coming Federal Express. But it looks like it went regular mail and got lost somewhere. We've been complaining for seven weeks, calling the post office. When is our 'W' coming?"
It came in convincing fashion against the Saints as the Panthers grabbed control of the game from the opening kickoff. Carolina drove 73 yards on 17 plays to take a 7-0 lead for good on a 1-yard pass from Steve Beuerlein to Muhsin Muhammad.
"Our defense didn't play bad after that first drive," Ditka said. "But that first drive kind of took a lot of wind out of them."
Carolina converted three of four third-down plays into first downs. On the one they missed, they converted on fourth down. Plus, Muhammad's touchdown pass came on a third-and-goal play.
"Every one of the 11 guys on defense has to step up and look at himself in the mirror and see what happened," Saints linebacker Mark Fields said.
Davis' interception and touchdown came on the third play of the second quarter. Down 14-0, the Saints had to abandon any hopes of establishing the run. They finished with 53 yards rushing, failing to reach the 70-yard barrier for the fifth consecutive game.
"We had control of the ballgame," Panthers cornerback Doug Evans said. "But when Eric made that play, it put a stake in their heart. We knew once we had them there, we could keep pounding and pounding and hopefully not give up big plays."
Tolliver finished with decent but deceptive statistics, completing 24 of 48 passes for 325 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. But 14 of those completions and both touchdowns came in the second half after Carolina took a three-touchdown lead.
"I didn't make any plays for us in the first half," Tolliver said. "We didn't get enough points in the second half. I mean, we lost this game today because I played like s---."